Part III: “A Quarter-Inch of Chaos” – at the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal Conference

 

Snow and Ice - Plows

Section 4 on the Sept. 9 agenda was a partial list of the correspondence and email the trustees had received since the last meeting. Most items – like the Ohio Township News magazine – were glossed over, but Chris Mucher paused to note the email confirming the township’s registration for the 2015 APWA Southwestern Ohio Snow and Ice Removal conference. The conference is a biannual affair designed to help local governments manage the inevitable hazards of winter.

“Put on your best snow boots,” Mucher said.

The 2015 conference, hosted by the American Public Works Association and held in Sharonville, Ohio, 50 miles away, was to feature speakers from road departments from all around the state. The showroom would feature over a dozen shiny new plow trucks and pieces of equipment, as well as a number of other vendors plying relevant trades, such as custom municipal sign-making and pipe repair, offered by a company which applies a proprietary sealant to the inside of busted pipes. (“We only do what the pipe tells us it needs,” says the company’s slogan.) The keynote speaker of the conference was Diana Clonch, a thirty-year public works veteran who is now a successful freelance winterization consultant.

“Any questions, Mark?” Mucher asked.
“Nope,” Crockett said.

The other trustees quietly avoided comment when registration was confirmed, lest they be roped into going as well.

It was Mucher who typically made the trip to the conference, and Dan Gochenouer, the cemetery sexton and a road crewman, usually went with him. Neither Gochenouer nor Mucher were particularly excited about attending. It wasn’t that the conference was totally boring, Gochenouer said, but that it wasn’t especially helpful. Attendees usually have to sit through a few hours of presentations to get a few minutes’ worth of usable information, he said. The presentations usually consisted of guys from around the state talking about how they solved a problem or adapted equipment to the needs of their jurisdiction. While Gochenouer could appreciate their ingenuity from a professional standpoint, the lessons didn’t always apply to the needs of Miami Township. A speaker from Franklin County (which includes Ohio’s capital Columbus) discussed strategies needed to deal with its 770 miles of roads: around two million gallons of anti-winter liquids annually and the use of semi-trucks to spray. Miami Township, on the other hand, has less than fourteen miles of roads and three trucks, a fleet occasionally augmented by citizens who attach plows to their personal vehicles.
The first official road in Miami Township was laid out on March 3, 1822, though there were several “so-called roads” before then. Michael A. Broadstone writes that the roads improved year by year, and most were “at least graveled” when he penned his History of Greene County, Ohio in 1918. By 2015, the township had exactly 13.43 miles of roads, almost all of them paved.

Road maintenance is within the purview of the trustees, a duty that includes everything from filling potholes to maintaining culverts to full-scale winterization. Each spring the township develops a road budget based on the work anticipated for the year, prioritizing repairs on the worst roads and any new equipment that needs to be purchased. The township fleet was three trucks (two of which have dumping capabilities), one 26 year-old panel van, and a handful of tractors and lawnmowers.

Road maintenance is an ongoing project, and one that occasionally requires help. Trustee Chris Mucher said that sometimes neighboring Bath Township, which has a paving machine, will do a little work in Miami Township in trade for help with their needs in the future. Once in a while the county will determine that part of a road now lies in Miami Township, which may add to their mileage-based clout but also means that the township is responsible for maintaining that much more road.

Road repair requiring equipment the township doesn’t possess is contracted out to the county. Miami Township works with neighboring municipalities work together to make what is called a “collective bid” for their collective asphalting or resurfacing needs. Participating jurisdictions add up what needs to be done – a half-mile stretch here, a few hundred square yards there – and submit a report to the county, who contracts the work to a company as one job. Doing it this way allows municipalities to save money, as everyone getting work done at the same time splits the cost of mixing asphalt and dispatching trucks and police.

Miami Township also has the dubious distinction of hosting the first vehicular accident in Greene County. Lodrick Austin, a stagecoach driver, was killed when his coach overturned on Clifton Gorge Road in 1836. Austin is buried in Clifton Cemetery, and his tombstone features a horse and a coach, which honestly seems a little insulting.

Though vehicular accidents are of course a fact of life in Miami Township, the fact that none of the township’s roads permit speeds over 35 mph means the severity of an accident is usually pretty low. However, low speed limits or high, cars are no match for the wiles of nature. Like everywhere else in Ohio and across the United States, accidents occur in Miami Township with greater frequency in the winter. Snow and ice are indiscriminate perils, and all it takes is a small amount of snow, “a quarter inch of chaos,” according to a presenter at the AWPA conference, to throw a city into bedlam.

As little as a quarter inch of snow means erratic drivers, slick roads, and asphalt breaking apart as water freezes and expands. The prospect of this quarter inch of chaos also means a significant amount of preparation by the township. Salt has to be stockpiled, and later mixed with beet juice or turned into slurry to be more easily spread on roads. The township’s trucks, with their spreaders, sprayers, and dump buckets, almost certainly require maintenance. Potholes need to be filled, and bridges need to be inspected.

Regardless of season, road maintenance is a complex obligation. Though Mucher and Gochenouer were seasoned township veterans, there was always something to learn, couched as it may be in a day’s worth of presentations. It is because of this potential for helpful information that the two attended the 2015 AWPA Snow and Ice Removal Conference.
Gochenouer and Mucher met at the Township’s fleet garage to leave for the conference at 7am on September 29. They were both early.

They didn’t get into one of the township’s work pickups but into Mucher’s golden Chrysler minivan. “The Muchmobile,” as Gochenouer called it. Mucher said his van was frequently the de facto work vehicle as most of the township’s vehicles only have two seats. The Muchmobile crunched on the gravel and wound its way through the township to the highway.

Mucher didn’t have much experience winterizing cities when he became a trustee in 1996. He ran a video rental and film development business in Yellow Springs for over twenty years, before digital film and video streaming proved the “ultimate fatality” for his career. However, when he was still in business, he struck up a friendship with the guy who ran the hardware store across the street. The two would have coffee every morning, and they developed a mentor-mentee friendship. Mucher was interested in becoming more involved in the community, and the hardware store owner encouraged him to apply for a recently vacated trustee seat. Mucher submitted an application, had a few interviews, and was offered the position. It proved to be just what he was looking for, a “low impact political job” that carried a lot of responsibility but still left him time to run his own business and spend time with his wife and three kids. Once in office he read “every page of meeting minutes since 1934,” attended conventions and seminars, and read the Ohio Revised Code front to back. Mucher has been reelected every four years since then. Now he is able to talk about winterization both fluently yet dispassionately, the hallmark of an experienced professional.

Gochenouer has a perpetually sunburned neck, a moustache, and a Leatherman on his belt that he could readily employ in many different ways. He exuded hands-on experience of the kind that only a lifetime of fixing things can foster. Gochenouer’s tenure working for the township preceded Mucher’s. He was working part time until a long-time employee retired, allowing him to become the number two road crewman.

On the way to Sharonville, the two discussed other trade shows conferences they’d been to and whether or not free lunch was included. It wasn’t always. Registration for the 2015 Snow and Ice conference cost $35 per person but at least included lunch. The topic settled, the two lapsed into a short silence. The day was grey, chilly, with a steady rain. The heater hummed and the windshield wipers squeaked.

Conversation picked back up again a few minutes later.

“You working on that dandelion quote?” Mucher asked.
The abundance of dandelions in the township had to be dealt with.
“Some people eat them,” Gochenouer said.
True, Mucher said. And some people make wine out of them too. Then both admitted they weren’t sure which part of the dandelion was used for the winemaking process.

A little while later, Mucher indicated a passing belonging to Jurgenson Asphalt Co.
“There are your friends,” he said.
Gochenouer nodded.
“They’re the best,” he said, nodding with sincerity.

He would know. Gochenouer said he came from an asphalt background. For one, he has spent a lot of time driving on it, he joked. But more seriously, he said, he started working on an asphalt crew right after high school, one of the many labor and construction jobs he’s had from an early age. His dad always made sure he was working on different projects and was comfortable around all kinds of machines. The idea was that his skills and experience would ensure he was always employable. “If you’re not working, it’s because you don’t want to,” Gochenouer said.

A truck driving erratically on the highway prompted the mention that he’d also been a truck driver. He’d driven for twelve years, five of which were long-haul and required him to spend up to seven weeks on the road at a time. He lived in his truck, thousands of miles away from his family and home.

“You’d sit in a waiting room and they’d call your number when a shower was ready,” he said, recalling old truck stops. “The shower was free but you’d have to rent the towel.”

But it wasn’t all bad, he said. Sometimes he’d be on a layover for a few days before linking up with a series of deliveries that would take him back towards home. On these furloughs he and his fellow truckers would go out and explore whatever city they were waiting in. Gochenouer recalled the beauty of California in particular, and the fun of sitting behind the Hollywood sign drinking beer. He’d been run out of Beverly Hills once, he said, for not looking the part. A cop came up to him and asked him what he was doing. “I said I was just looking,” Gochenouer recalled, “and the cop said, ‘Well, you looked yet?’”

Snow and Ice - trucks
Forty minutes later, the Muchmobile pulled into the conference center parking lot. It was the lone minivan among rows of work trucks with maintenance department insignias. Inside the conference center were the trucks’ drivers, approximately three hundred men with closely cropped hair and goatees. Cellphones were universally clipped to belts, and neon t-shirts were worn in numbers rivaled only by those at an actual construction site. Sixty-five municipalities were represented at the conference, making it “pretty sizable for a local AWPA conference,” according to one organizer.

The conference was only one day long. The morning was divided into four 45-minute sessions. One of the sessions was earmarked for attendees to check out the showroom, but the other three sessions were presentations. Attendees were divided into four groups and rotated through the sessions. Mucher and Gochenouer were in Group 2, meaning that they went to the showroom first.

The conference organizers set out donuts and coffee. Both men took a donut and looked at the trucks. They were shiny and gigantic, but ultimately outside the needs of Miami Township. The township’s road budget for 2015 was approximately $50,000, and one of the middle-grade trucks cost at least twice that.

One company offered their services quantifying idle time. A rep said she did a study of one muncipality and found the time its vehicles spent idling cost the city around $50,000 each year. Plow-route optimization would lead to less idle time, and she could figure out how to optimize plow routes.

Mucher and Gochenouer made their rounds. Despite the entreaties of the sales reps, they left empty-handed.

The next two hours and fifteen minutes were dedicated to presentations. Mucher and Gochenouer sat in these sessions, polite but expressionless, casually listening for those few minutes of valuable information. Though a cell phone would occasionally go off (one ringtone was a very loud duck-quack) and at least one sleeping attendee could be spotted during each discussion, attendees were privy to much information, as a county’s snow and ice removal concerns are many:

Plows tend to throw snow onto the front of trucks, obscuring visibility and blocking air intakes, which can lead to overheating. Excess salt can cause to ‘salt burn,’ which damages agriculture and kills trees and leads to a ‘brown out’ when spring comes. Plow routes are based on continuous right hand turns, which is why a representative from Centerville maligned the town’s many cul-de-sacs. Plow teams are often on call for grueling twelve-hour shifts, though this is better than working for sixteen hours at a stretch, a schedule that employees “can’t really plan their lives around.” Sometimes, the ground will be so cold that even after the air temperature rises, rain will freeze shortly after impact. What is the proper mix of chemicals, salt, and water for slurry? Is salt brine or beet juice more effective? When and where are belly plows most useful? Is chloride-treated sand the best deicer for gravel roads? Are the township’s trucks calibrated properly, and are they actually putting out what their gauges say? “One thing we’ve been wrestling with for years are standard truck plugs,” said a guy from the Ohio Department of Transportation. Everyone in the audience laughed and nodded. “How many of you have replaced mailboxes?” another speaker asked. Almost everyone raised their hands.

The application of liquid deicers vs. solid salt is an ongoing debate. Liquids are better at getting roads bare but solid salt is more effective in warmer temperatures. (Both methods are said to have problematic environmental impacts.) A guy attending from Michigan related how he came back from his first conference with all of these crazy ideas about liquid spray. “My coworkers thought I was stoned or high,” he said. “They wanted to send me to get a drug test!” Rob Crimm from Morgan Township said his department “was just now getting into liquids.” They realized that mixing liquids or sometimes even sand with salt will help stretch their resources.

As Gochenouer predicted, the discussions didn’t offer universal solutions for these problems but presented the clever ways in which winter emergencies were addressed. Auglaise County faced the problem of equipment not mixing rock salt – “grit,” as the presenter called it – well enough into brine. There would still be large patches of ice on the road after it was dispersed, so he and his team retrofitted an asphalt hopper to mix it. The upgrade cost Auglaise County about $31,000 but now they mix 40,000 tons of salt brine per year and even rent out their salt mixing services, charging neighboring counties and agencies $13 per ton. (A fairly standard amount, he said.) The speaker also showed pictures of the custom beet juice tanks his department built for $600 each.

Diana Clonch’s roundtable was one of the four sessions, and she’d spent the morning spitballing with employees. She applauded the imagination she’d seen at the conference. “The more we learn, the more we know how to step outside the box,” she said. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Clonch was tall and broad-shouldered, and her long black hair was draped over her shoulder in a thick plait, like a military sash. (She was the past president of the OPWA Board.) She spoke simply but animatedly, like someone used to public speaking. She seemed friendly and successful, the likely demeanor of someone with degrees in civil engineering and business.

“Do not be ashamed to steal your neighbor’s ideas,” Clonch advised. “We’re all working together in the snow and ice community.”

Sometimes friendly rivalry between neighboring counties was a good thing, she said. Plowing a road cleanly all the way to the county line awards bragging rights when you can see the neighboring county hadn’t gotten to it yet. But more seriously, she said, working with other jurisdictions can be very beneficial because collaboration increases efficiency and saves money. After all, at the heart of it, it’s all for the benefit of the people that live there.

Snow and Ice - lunch

Clonch’s session was the last of the four for Group 2. The attendees walked straight into the two long lines of the lunch buffet. Hamburgers, baked beans, chicken, and macaroni and cheese. Plates full, they filed back into the showroom and sat around large folding tables. The tables were in turn surrounded by the trucks on display. It was like eating in a garage on the job.

Mucher and Gochenouer sat with a half-dozen guys, exchanging small talk. Not much more could be said. Anything they could say to each other on the topic of snow removal had likely already been covered in one of the earlier sessions, or had been part of the pitch rattled off by a sales rep. At this point, the conference was about as exciting as eating lunch in a garage that looked like the garage they spent time in every day. The Miami Township contingent decided to cut out after lunch, skipping Clonch’s keynote speech (“Doing the right thing at the right time”) and the recognition of the 2015 Excellence in Snow and Ice Control Award winner. They’d seen enough throughout the years in Miami Township to have a handle on what they had to do in the coming months.

They walked back to the Muchmobile silently, Gochenouer carrying a can of soda. They knew that, should some surprise crisis pop up, each could be counted on to address it with the professionalism that is an evident part of their bearing. Gochenouer was scrappy and smart; Mucher was thorough and direct. They’d been through two meetings’ worth of irate neighbors – what was a quarter inch of snow?

Update, Spring 2016: the winter of 2015-16 proved not to be that bad. Mucher said the township used about 25% the amount of salt normally used, they didn’t have to pay for outside plow help, and there were no significant vehicle repairs.

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I produce 9,000 pounds of bean sprouts each week

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In 1982 I was just getting out of the Peace Corps. My dad had bought a farm wanted to do something with property. So we decided to go into business together. He bought the farm originally to grow grapes but that didn’t pan out. At the time, we thought that to really promote your wines you had to have a festival, and that would mean you had to bring thousands of people here for a wine tasting. It was a major thing that we didn’t want to do. So we built a greenhouse and started growing herbs, tomatoes, watercress, European cucumbers. There was an emerging market for hydroponic lettuce so we started growing lettuce hydroponically. Every year we added a greenhouse and pretty soon we had 20,000 square feet of produce.

We sold produce wholesale. There’s a big produce market around, especially in Cincinnati because of the river. There’s an established warehouse district there. We knocked on doors and did cold calls. We were supplying the Meijer chain for a while. And then one of our alfalfa sprout growers lost their supplier and wanted a replacement and asked if we knew how to grow alfalfa sprouts. We didn’t but of course we said yes anyway. (Laughs)

We tried to build our own equipment and grow sprouts in the greenhouse, but it just didn’t work out. Months later we bought the right equipment and did it the way it really needs to be done. The alfalfa sprouts are grown in a large rotating drum. You add water and light, and they green up after a few hours. You load in about 80 pounds per drum, and you get about a 10- 15:1 ratio after about five days. They were used primarily for salad bars, sandwich shops.

The green sprouts (alfalfa) business declined. A lot of the chain grocery stores dropped green sprouts – the green alfalfa sprout has an inherent problem with salmonella and E.coli. The structure of the seed has more crevices for bacteria to hide. We got out of alfalfa ten years ago but alfalfa sprouts led to us see the market for bean sprouts. The bean sprout market is pretty good – a lot of Asian markets and grocery stores.

Bean sprouts are a highly perishable product so there aren’t a lot of growers around. They can’t bring a decent bean sprout in from another state without paying huge shipping costs, so it favors the local grower. You want to get them sold within two days of harvest, and they need to be consumed within 10 to 14 days. I think the distributors we use ship in some sprouts from Chicago and I know there’s a grower in Columbus, but he only has a few sales in Dayton.

The process we use is unique to bean sprouts. The equipment we have is specifically for growing them. We’ll load up 110 pounds of seeds in a 3’ x 4’ x 4’ bin. The bean seeds themselves come from China. I don’t know why – maybe they grow the best beans? The bins are in a dark room and we spray them with water every two hours. We do a test and send it to a lab in Cincinnati twice a week to test for E.coli and salmonella to make sure the product is safe. We have a recycling system that cleans 80 percent of the water we use. The beans sprout on the bottom and push successive layers to the top. Kind of like they’re in dirt. On the sixth day of the process, we process them, package them, and put them in a cooler. We ship them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. We sell about 9000 pounds per week. It’s an amazingly big market. (Laughs) And that’s just the Dayton and Cincinnati area.

 

(Let me interject and say that a bin full of fully sprouted sprouts is totally surreal – the bins are four feet tall and are completely, completely packed with sprouts. You can reach your hand in and it’s this weird tangle of dense but loose sprouts with seemingly no end. They are so dense that you could probably walk on them. The bins are in a dark, damp room, and standing on a bucket and peering over the top into a bin and seeing an ocean of yellow-green fibers makes for a really odd sight. Not to mention that if you opened the vertical door on one of the bins, a few hundred pounds of sprouts would avalanche out and cover you in their watery, earthy essence. Maybe I’m just used to seeing them in small cartons in grocery stores, so the sheer amount of sprouts in one place is hard to process, not to mention that this is just one of seven bins.)

It’s been a nice business. It’s profitable, the market’s consistent, and it grows. But it takes a lot of commitment. Someone has to be here every day to check on them. We have alarms for malfunctioning pumps In fact, the most catastrophic event we experienced was when the computer that controls the watering cycle broke down last winter. I had to come in every two hours for a whole week and push the watering server bar over the bins by hand. I had help doing it during the day but I had to stay overnight every night and get up every two hours to do it. That’s the thing about small businesses – you make enough to survive, but a lot of times you don’t make enough to pay a manager to take responsibility for things. (Laughs) The responsibility comes back to me.

I graduated from college with a degree in Zoology. I had never even tasted sprouts before we started. In the Peace Corps I was raising fish – it was a kind of farming, but I really had no experience with growing. I learned my business sense along the way. Raising sprouts isn’t something I ever saw myself doing, but isn’t that how most people end up in life – not really doing what they thought they were going to do?

 

 

 

 

 

Quaint Vituperations: the Glen House Inn Controversy

Miami Township map overlay bwBelow is the first section of a forthcoming nonfiction novella that chronicles the goings on of a small township in southwestern Ohio. I was sent to cover a township trustee meeting as a reporter for an area newspaper. Although nobody from the public normally attended those meetings, this was in particular was a hotbed of controversy and drew a dozen or so irate citizens. A rogue bed and breakfast was making waves in a neighborhood, and some neighbors wanted it shut down. The anti-B&B neighbors had a list of complaints against the inn that they said stretched back years.

However, a number of the B&B’s neighbors were friends of the owners and supported what the B&B was doing. The neighborhood was divided into cranky adherents on both sides, and the following trustee meeting was attended by pro-B&B neighbors refuting the points made by the first. To the neighbors, depending on what the trustees decided, the township was either tyrannical or ineffective.

While this may not sound like a riveting thing to write about, it was. The nature of the dispute and the personalities involved are fascinating, and the ways in which they clashed are hilarious, aggravating, serious, and quaint, all at the same time.

And this isn’t even taking into account the rest of the evening’s meeting, which involved everything from unknown remains found in an old cemetery to a visit to the Ohio Snow and Ice Removal Conference. My upcoming novella, logically titled “Dance of the Trustees,” discusses life in the township, from its history of burial mounds and murders to the storied careers of the township trustees who have taken it upon themselves to steer such a multifaceted ship.

Quaint Vituperations: the Glen House Inn Controversy

Trustee Mark Crockett is a man who speaks deliberately, delivering each phrase with the ponderousness of a court justice who has all the time in the world. He sat in an equivalent posture on the evening of September 9, slightly reclined in his chair behind the table at the head of the room, fingers interlocked over his belly. He looked out on the room with equanimity, observing the proceedings and taking them in.

Crockett, like the other trustees, was in an interesting position. He had lived in the area with his wife for almost 40 years, owned a business, and was otherwise just a man around town. But he, like the other trustees, made decisions on behalf of his fellow residents.

Neither Crockett nor any of the other trustees had previous experience holding political office. Spracklen was a farmer, Mucher used to own the area’s video store, and Crockett is a jeweler and guitar player. (Though Mucher was an in-law to the DeWine family, an Ohio political dynasty.) But civic management skills were picked up on the job, and the public had trusted them enough to reelect each of them multiple times.

However, President of the Miami Township Boards of Trustees Chris Mucher looked around the meeting room warily on September 9. He could sense tempers were a little high, and so the outcome of the evening would likely make some proportionally serious waves. Any decision made is bound to offend someone, and in the case of the first portion of that evening’s meeting, any official position would offend at least half of an entire neighborhood.

The meeting began shortly after 7 p.m.

Mucher stood up and introduced himself and the rest of the people at the table: fellow trustee Mark Crockett, Margaret Silliman, the financial officer, “number one road employee” Dan Gochenouer, Miami Township Zoning Inspector Richard Zopf, and StepIMG_20160505_164722337hanie Hayden, the Greene County assistant prosecutor, who had been called in specifically to give her interpretation of the B&B dispute.

Mucher’s right hand stayed in the pocket of his khakis as he gave a referee-esque preamble to the proceedings.

“In our opinion, the board of trustees is the bedrock of local government,” he said. “It’s the place where the balance begins between the rights of the property owner and the rights of society. Sometimes it gets a little messy, but I assure tonight isn’t going to be messy. It’s going to be polite and dignified.”

The balance between the rights of the property owner and the rights of society were indeed going to be discussed. The meeting was the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle between a bed and breakfast and the neighbors it reportedly annoyed. The anti-Inn neighbors, the Concerned Circle Citizens (CCC), sat in the front row and nodded. Their de facto spokesperson brought with her a folder full of stapled documents to prove the soundness of their position. Nobody in favor of the B&B was there, as pains had been taken to avoid telling them the topic was going to be addressed at the meeting.

On the surface, the debate may seem a bit droll: how often does a quaint B&B drive neighbors mad? But such charming disputes are practically written into the township’s DNA.

An odd bit of Ohio Code allows the average residential homeowner to run a B&B out of her home with little official oversight.[1] In fact, a number of area residents were taking advantage of this allowance. Miami Township encompasses a number of picturesque hamlets, including the village of Yellow Springs, a progressive small town full of art galleries, a tourist destination most appropriately served by quaint B&Bs. A bumper sticker claims the area is “2.2 square miles surrounded by reality,” and the area’s pastoral vistas suggest this may be the case.

However, Crockett said most people who live in Miami Township just want to be left alone. The presence of a B&B in a quiet neighborhood a few miles outside of Yellow Springs was said to be aggressively challenging the desire to live unmolested. The Glen House Inn, located in a quiet neighborhood a few miles outside of Yellow Springs, was accused of hosting dozens of visitors and large-scale events like weddings, self-help workshops, and Solstice vigils, a far cry from the romantic (and manageable) couples who usually patronize B&Bs. The excess noise and people “undermined the quiet integrity of the neighborhood,” as one neighbor put it, and another said he never would have moved to the neighborhood in the first place had he known the Inn would so loud. Negotiations between the sides had deteriorated, if they were ever civil at all. Both sides accused the other of being obstinate and dishonest, and both accused the township of not acting with consistency in enforcing its laws.

As such, on September 9, the parties sought a definitive interpretation of code. Was the Inn operating legally or not? Should the Inn be found in compliance, the neighbors would just have to deal with it; should the Inn be found in violation, the B&B would have to scale back its operations, a change the owner said would ruin him financially.

Prosecutor Hayden was there to give an official interpretation of the law, and to offer suggestions about what steps could be taken to square everything with code. Throughout the meeting, her face held a look of intelligent skepticism, the fiercely judicious look of someone professionally capable of seeing through bullshit.

The crowd murmured, eager to get started. Richard Zopf, the wild-bearded township zoning inspector, tried to look relaxed while knowing that the whole room was eager to blame him for their troubles. Gochenouer, the road crewman and cemetery sexton whose official business didn’t have anything to do with the crowd, folded his hands and smiled faintly.

Genesis of the Dispute


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Grinnell Circle, where the Glen House Inn is located, is a ten-minute drive from the MTFR building. Down Corry Street, past a nature preserve and a stable of therapeutic horses, is Grinnell Road. A left turn on Grinnell takes the visitor down a sizable hill and onto a road overlooked by the colorful buildings of a recently revamped wastewater treatment plant. A few miles further south and the visitor will come to a noticeably bucolic setting, a clearing with stone walls and an old mill with water wheel set among hedges and trees. The Glen Circle neighborhood is back in this splendiferous idyll.

Glen Circle is a collection of homesteads grouped around an acre of common area. Some neighbors have gates; some have none; most have a decent amount of money. Eric and Deirdre Owen, the owners of the Inn, spent $700,000 to build a large house on the Circle in 2005, largely because of its regal charm. Both grew up in Yellow Springs, and wanted to return. The house is based on a dream home they sketched on a cocktail napkin in Europe many years before.

Owen is in his late 40s, thickset, unkempt in a way that speaks for consistent productivity in his pursuits. He’s a kind of wheeler-dealer, active in the art world and owner of a few properties, including part of a hotel in small-town Michigan. He was thrust into bed and breakfast ownership when he had a falling out with the partners of a company he founded 25 years before. He took a year’s salary and retired, but quickly recognized the money was not enough to sustain him forever. He knew he had to do something to secure his retirement. A beautiful house was at his disposal, and he decided to turn it into a B&B. The Glen House Inn’s website was up and running within thirty days of his decision. He said it was the only way to save the house.

In the interest of being open about his plans and in order to get a permit to follow through with them, Owen met with the Board of Zoning Appeals in July 2011. The BZA overhears building plans, checks them against zoning code, and questions prospective builders about the effects the construction will have on the surroundings. All BZA meetings are open to the public, and citizens are encouraged to attend and weigh in with their concerns. Anti-Inn neighbors came to the BZA meeting, anticipating the B&B would be trouble, and wanting to register their reservations.

Both sides grant some kind of tenuous agreement was reached regarding the operations of the Inn, but none of the claims about what was said can be proven, as the official record for this meeting has disappeared. Video of any BZA meeting would ordinarily be available through the local cable access station or on a DVD at the library, but the master recording could no longer be found, and the person who took notes at the meeting no longer worked for the Township. Ultimately, Zopf recalled, “there was no reason not to grant Owen a permit,” as Owen’s plans seemed kosher.

With the impression everything was on the up-and-up, the Owens opened the Glen House Inn. Guests lined up to rent its five spacious rooms, lounge on its patio, appreciate the impressive art collection, and swim in its stream-fed pool. The whole Inn is bathed in that tranquil, sunlit green characteristic of 18th century paintings. It’s an objectively beautiful location, and business was steady.

However, perhaps because of the bacchanalia such locations induce, neighbors said their concerns about disturbed peace were immediately proven correct. Catering trucks parked on the berm of the already-narrow road. Fireworks – “nice ones, like you’d see in town” – were said to have almost hit two houses at 12:45 a.m. Guests playing in the pool were too noisy. One resident said he was unhappy with unknown people lurking in the neighborhood, and described a recent occurrence where a car circled around the neighborhood before parking at the Inn.

“Why would they do that?” he asked. “I think it’s a safety concern.”

(The Owens maintain that some of these events happened once and never again, and that the neighbors have been referencing them for years. And people drive on the road, Owen said, because it’s a public road.)

The neighbors maintain they complained to the township and the county, to no avail, for at least four years. But in 2015, action was taken after the Inn’s busted septic system began stinking up the area. The ghastly effluence was definitely coming from the Inn, one neighbor said. “A lot of sniff-testing confirmed it.” The Greene County Health Department investigated – they have jurisdiction over septic systems – and deemed the septic system completely inadequate for the amount of people the Inn hosted.

By this point the Owens had moved back to Michigan and the operations of the Inn were being managed by a live-in caretaker Jody Farrar and her husband Bill. The Owens and Farrars conceded the septic system was not working and fixed it. Other repairs were undertaken and the Inn continued hosting guests and renting out their facilities at a rate of $5,000 per weekend. The noise was alleged to have continued unabated.

The final straw was when neighbors got wind that Owen was talking about reworking the property into a winery. It was a clever power play, as viticulture is exempt from zoning. A winery is considered an agricultural practice, which Ohio Code explicitly states townships have no jurisdiction over, including the zoning of buildings as part of the agricultural operation.[2]

Owen had no qualms using this possibility as leverage. “I’ll convert it to a winery rather than face foreclosure,” he said. “Then there’ll be hundreds of cars per weekend versus just a few.” (When the viticulture possibility was brought up at the meeting on Sept. 9, Stephanie Hayden wasn’t impressed. “We have a lot of people threaten to open a winery to get zoning off their back,” she said.)

Credible threat or not, the neighbors ramped up their efforts to get the township to intervene, hence asking the trustees to invite Hayden and the neighbors’ collective appearance at the meeting.

At the Meeting of September 9, 2015

September 9 was it. Their big meeting, their big chance for an official showdown. The neighbors were sober and ready to go; partners held hands for encouragement. After his brief opening speech, Mucher introduced Hayden.

Hayden was Greene County’s prosecutor, and by statue, the township’s lawyer, she said. She clearly and concisely explained what roles the various boards and commissions played in the drama. She outlined the process of suing someone over zoning concerns, the difference between civil and municipal court, and the possible outcomes of such a suit. ($500 per day per violation, in one instance.) Her elucidations were illustrated with examples of other problematic zoning cases. “One guy was a junk property owner, an outdoor hoarder. We disagree what the definition of ‘junk’ is,” she said.

She then asked the neighbors to present their case.

“When did these problems start?” Hayden asked.
“First of June, 2011,” said the head of the CCC immediately.
Her ready answer prompted laughs.
“We’re on top of this,” the neighbor said.

The CCC enumerated the violations and complaints that plagued the Inn since it had opened. And not only was the Inn hosting many more guests than was legally allowed, the CCC spokesperson argued, but the Owens didn’t even live in Ohio, which meant that the Inn wasn’t owner-occupied, which meant that it wasn’t even technically abiding by the B&B guidelines set out in code.

Hayden listened to the neighbor’s complaints with total concentration, her body involuntarily twitching when she heard a particularly egregious violation. The neighbors were very thorough. “You’re the best witnesses I’ve ever had,” Hayden said. Her assessment was obvious: the parameters of what is officially acceptable, for bed and breakfast and everything else, are plainly spelled out in the Ohio Revised Code, the Ohio Administrative Code, Miami Township Code or any of the other official regulations used by a county or city agency. These laws are indisputable, and she was clearly baffled that the Inn was still in operation at all. Her expression also hinted at her feelings as a human being annoyed by other humans who think they’re special.

All things considered, Hayden said it made sense to convene representatives from all agencies involved in the dispute and file a formal complaint against the Inn. She suggested giving the Inn a “fill-in-the-blanks violation of notice,” a pre-drafted letter the agencies could just fill in with the violations they’d inevitably discover. Hayden and Zopf agreed they would pay the Inn a visit in a few days. The trustees sat back in their chairs with evident relief. A decision had to be made, and it was.

This decision reached, about 98% of the people at the meeting got up and gathered their belongings. “You’re welcome to stay for the rest of the…” Mucher began, but the attendees filed past him and went back outside. Snatches of their conversation could be heard as the door swung open and closed. The first part of the September 9 meeting had taken one hour and fourteen seconds.

A Visit to the Inn

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Entering the Grinnel Circle neighborhood. The entrance to the Inn is to the left; straight ahead is the central common area.

The Inn was apparently subject to intimidation in the days following the September 9 meeting. Someone pounded on door in the middle of the night, and guests reported what sounded like guns being shot off right next to the house.

Things did not improve from there. Five days after the trustee meeting, on September 14, a contingent of county and township functionaries paid a visit to the Inn. The Owens travelled down from Michigan to lead the zoning and health code inspectors on what they thought was a “fact-finding mission” to determine what aspects of the Inn needed to be brought up to code. Instead, Owen said, they were surprised to find themselves served with a cease and desist letter, just as Hayden had suggested.

The letter said the Inn had two weeks from that day to scale back its operations or it would be shut down. The inn could have no more than five guests in its current incarnation, nor could it host any events. It also had to stop its activities as an art gallery (or venue of any kind), as it also violated statutes defining what constitutes a home-based business.

Eric Owen promptly called the Yellow Springs News, as he knew a reporter was at the Trustees meeting and wanted to provide the world with this most shocking update. He and Deirdre and the Farrars and his mother Luisa were sitting outside on deck chairs when the reporter arrived, gobsmacked by the morning’s events. Owen related what happened with the impassioned but disjointed cadence of someone thinking aloud. After a few minutes he paused and held out his lit cigarette.

“Look what they have me doing,” he said. “I don’t even smoke.”

The agencies’ letter effectively meant he would have to turn the B&B into a hotel, he said. In order for the Inn to host the number of guests it had been, Owen would have to install steel doors, fire dampeners, hood systems in the kitchen, and a 150,000-gallon cistern for a sprinkler system in his house, an expense he simply could not afford.

The CCC was basically a “lynch mob” that had their “tentacles” in county and township agencies. This was nothing like the community he used to know, he said. He said Greene County were toadies following the regulations created by and directly benefitting the worldwide hotel industry. Owen’s mother compared the Inn’s situation with the policies of the fascist regime she lived through as a young woman in a prison camp in Yugoslavia.

“Where I grew up, they would kill you for speaking up. If that were the case here, I would still speak up about the Inn,” she said.

But the caretakers got to work making two of the five rooms unavailable. They had to remove an illegal downstairs bathroom and take out some beds as a show of good faith that they wouldn’t secretly accommodate more guests than they were allowed. Jody Farrar said she had to call and tell people they couldn’t have their wedding at the Inn. The guests went from angry to devastated, she said, as some people had already ordered decorations specifically to go with the property.

All of this after the largesse the Inn has shown the area, Owen said, like the free use of the Inn for area cultural affairs and “at least 50 meals and $400 in wine purchased in town” by guests of a recent event.

They’d just have to wait and see if the Inn would still be sustainable.

The Second Meeting – September 21, 2015

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Looking toward the Glen House Inn across the neighborhood common area.

 

Tempers ran high at the subsequent trustees meeting two weeks later. If the previous meeting was noteworthy for its attendance, this one was exceptional. Supporters of the Inn said it was their duty to show up and testify on the Inn’s behalf, as they were deliberately excluded from the previous meeting. The CCC was there to advocate again for their position.

The trustees filed in from the corridor. Trustee Lamar Spracklen wasn’t at the previous meeting, but he was this time. He sat down in his chair and stared out at the room. He looked like a grizzled boxing instructor commanding someone to punch a side of meat, and he had a bandage on his face that stretched from his lip to his cheekbone. His eyes scanned the crowd, like he was just waiting for someone to ask what happened. Gochenouer was at the table, and so were Crockett, Silliman, and Zopf.

Chris Mucher stood up, and with little official township preamble addressed the crowd. There was a slight tremble in his voice.

“If anyone thinks they’re in the wrong place, they’re not,” he said. “This is exactly where you want to be. This is a public meeting of the Board of Trustees.”

The Inn’s supporters were ready to go. A neighbor named Dan Rudolf spoke, lauding the operations of the Inn and saying he was not bothered by the occasional noise. His speech was delivered with an eloquence that bespoke serious conviction, or at least a lot of time rehearsing the delivery. Innkeeper Bil Farrar, tall, with a wispy red beard and long red ponytail, stood up and added his piece. He tried to make the difficult argument that the neighbors were being un-neighborly – a subjective characteristic that was hard to objectively prove, and a point that was difficult to understand because his speech was peppered with phrases like “maybe it’s not your job to promote community” and “losing the opportunity to eat potato salad with the Lithgows[3],” on top of referring to the proceedings as a “plot.” By the looks on the faces of the other attendees, the strength of his case was dampened by the profligate use of these rhetorical illustrations. Nevertheless, their abundance spoke for the seriousness of his convictions.

Owen’s eyes were sparkling with a barely-containable desire to speak. He leapt up. Did the Township know the position he and Deirdre were being put in? he asked.

“We’re basically vagabonds,” he said. “We have no house; we sleep when there are free rooms in the bed and breakfast.” He already worked eighteen hours a day, he said, and now he had to deal with this.

“If the neighbors wanted a gated community, why don’t they just create a gated community?” he asked.

He wasn’t inherently opposed to code, he said, and every time he was asked he tried to square his property with it. But the changes the Inn had to make were difficult to understand thanks the unclear information given by the Township and the fact that county and Ohio codes didn’t always line up. It was tough to tell which code took precedence, he said, but either way, he felt the Inn was being ganged up on.

“I don’t know what club you’re part of,” Owen said.

“I don’t have a club,” said Mucher. “This has absolutely nothing to do with any other department or political subdivision.”

“I mean the club we’re being beaten with,” Owen said.

More testimony was heard from Bob Bingenheimer, who had a letter to the editor entitled “Glen House Closing Shows Worst of People and Government” published in the paper earlier that week, though its incendiary title was changed to something less acerbic. Another innkeeper in town offered her take on the issue, arguing against the necessity of strictly following the owner-occupancy requirement for small-scale B&Bs.

Here trustee Spracklen weighed in. He sympathized with the Owens and told of his own troubles running his own B&B. He is the owner-operator of another picturesque area inn, and his B&B necessarily operates under the auspices of the same township code. Spracklen’s establishment had recently come under fire for serving a breakfast far too large for its permit, and he sarcastically explained how the Health Department demanded significant upgrades to the kitchen.[4]

“Don’t make me laugh or my tape’ll fall off,” he said, touching his bandage.

(A few weeks later he would basically be in Owen’s position, pleading his case to the Health Department and visibly trying to stifle his irritation at their inability to understand why he should just be allowed to do what he wants to do.)

The CCC was there and pleaded their case anew, going point-for-counterpoint with Owen’s. The argument got more convoluted as more people weighed in. There was a circuitous discussion of what defines traffic on the circle, and then a discussion on the nature of socializing itself. Mucher stepped in and gave a ten-minute warning, mentioning again that no real or enforceable resolution would be coming from this meeting, or the next one, or any future meetings. A change to the zoning code required advocating for the change before the Zoning Commission, who would render their expert opinion and eventually suggest a change for the trustees to vote on.

The public debate portion of the Sept. 21 meeting ran for the next ten minutes, and the trustees wrapped it up. There was not much more to say, and little that could be done at that moment. The attendees once again got up and left as soon as the debate session was over, the two sides avoiding further interaction and leaving the building to fume together or in private.

Ultimately, the case added up to this: because the Owens had more than five guests, because it was shown that the Owens are registered tax-payers in Michigan, because the property is zoned residential, and because they didn’t have the appropriate health, fire, and food licenses, the Glen House Inn would have to limit its bed and breakfasting operations to those allowed in residentially-zoned properties. The mandates of the letter signed jointly by the Greene County Combined Health District and the Miami Township offices were not up for debate – code was there for a reason, and that reason could not be selectively enforced, no matter how fascistic or unfair it may seem. There had to be some structure, and that structure was outlined in Miami Township Code.

“That’s the most dramatic thing about being a trustee – whether you like it or not, changes happen,” Crockett said. “Our job is to try to make the best decision for the majority of the people in the community.”

A decision had been reached on September 14, and it stood.

Update, Spring 2016: An article about this controversy was published in the Yellow Springs News not long after the second Board of Trustees meeting. The article presented an overview of the debate and reported on the cease and desist letter, suggesting the Inn was shut down as a result. Richard Zopf was quick to point out was not the case. He wrote a letter to the editor that said the article made the Zoning Inspector look bad and misinterpreted the township’s position. The Inn was not closed down, he pointed out, it just had to stop its violations. He maintained that this was his position all along – all of the suggestions he had ever given, all of the leniency he’s shown the Owens – were all in the interest of getting the Inn in compliance with Code. He, in his duty as Zoning Inspector, was simply trying to follow the letter of the law. He admitted he had been lenient in the time he allowed residents to comply, but no more. He had been taken advantage of by both sides, he said, and from that point on was going to be strict in his definitions of what was acceptable and not.

The Inn reduced its operations within the fourteen days demanded by the letter and has stayed at that level ever since. Its available rooms are booked fairly consistently. (It was determined that the Owens did have residency in Ohio, as the Inn was their registered address and Ohio law does not specify a length of time required for residency.)

Jody Farrar said it seemed like the authorities were trying to cover their tracks in going after the Inn. There are five B&Bs in the area, she said, but the Inn got “dissected” because the health department realized they were supposed to be monitoring B&Bs but weren’t, and went after one in order to save face. Bil Farrar, speaking with his customary grandiloquence, said “the shrapnel rained down and gave us all paper cuts; we didn’t die but we were severely injured.” Owen said members of the CCC have called them and pretended to be someone looking to book an event to see if the Inn would slip up.

In late March of 2016, a pro-Inn neighbor wrote a letter to the editor to be published in the Yellow Springs News. It was entitled “Unintended Consequences: An Essay About Community, a Cautionary Tale” and decried the Township’s decision, saying that all semblance of neighborly cooperation had been bulldozed by the CCC’s intractable opposition to the Owens. The letter ran almost 3,000 words, and the editor of the News said it had to be cut down by about 75 percent in order to be published. The author said she couldn’t do this, the argument had to be presented in its entirety, and she said was willing to pay the full $800 to run the essay as a full-page ad. The staff of the News was unsure about this proposition, as a mockup of the full-page version of the essay looked a lot like the screed of a maniac demanding its publication in order prevent further tragedy. The News was unsure if they wanted to open the paper up to that kind of thing.

Ultimately, Owen asked the well-intentioned neighbor not to go through with publishing her lengthy missive. He had a prospective buyer for the property and didn’t want to dredge up problems associated with the house. As of April 2016, the house is en route to be being sold and will revert back to its first incarnation as a private residence. According to Owen, it just wasn’t worth it to keep the Glen House Inn going.

“I’ve dealt with this same provincial shit before with my hotel in Michigan,” Owen said, “but this was something else.”

[1] 5.308 Bed and Breakfast Operations, under the following conditions:

5.3101 All operations hereunder must meet the definition of Bed and Breakfast.
5.3102 Are operated totally within the principal dwelling and not within a garage or accessory building.
5.3103 Does not have exterior evidence of operation other than one (1) square foot wall sign as permitted under Section 2.14
5.3104 Shall contain no additional, separate kitchen facilities for guests.
5.3105 Shall provide one (1) off-street parking space for every guest room in addition to the off-street parking otherwise required for the principal structure as provided in each district.
5.3106 Shall permit access to the guest room only through the principal structure.
5.3107 Shall obtain an occupancy permit from Greene County Building Inspection Department prior to the commencement of operations to ensure compliance with all applicable building and safety standards.

[2] 519.21 Powers not conferred on township zoning commission by chapter: Except as otherwise provided in division (B) of this section, sections 519.02 to 519.25 of the Revised Code confer no power on any township zoning commission, board of township trustees, or board of zoning appeals to prohibit the use of any land for agricultural purposes or the construction or use of buildings or structures incident to the use for agricultural purposes of the land on which such buildings or structures are located, including buildings or structures that are used primarily for vinting and selling wine and that are located on land any part of which is used for viticulture, and no zoning certificate shall be required for any such building or structure.

Section B of the above references includes exceptions such as a parcel of land of five acres or less or one located in a platted subdivision containing 15 or more lots. On a lot that is one acre or smaller, zoning may prohibit or regulate all agricultural activities.

[3] Sometimes the Inn was rented out by Antioch College as a home for its special guests, which once included actor John Lithgow and his family. Lithgow’s father was a theater professor at Antioch, and John Lithgow attended daycare in Yellow Springs.

[4] A few years before, a local woman named Nora Byrnes began serving free breakfasts to the community from her home on a residential street. She’d take custom orders and had an impressive buffet anyone could help themselves to. Everyone was welcome, and donations were tacitly accepted. Breakfasts at Norah’s grew to be so well liked that Norah would have between forty to sixty people eating at her house. Friends volunteered as waitstaff, and the breakfast operations began to look like a professional restaurant, though the community-minded approach (everyone sat family style) was said by her fans to engender a uniquely communal environment. Of course, regularly serving food to sixty people caught the eye of the Health Department, who said she was totally unlicensed and had to shut down. The community was in an uproar that her generosity was being circumscribed, and so Spracklen began letting Byrnes use his B&B to host her breakfasts once a week. These breakfasts likewise drew the attention of the Health Department. Byrnes was forced to stop serving breakfast at Spracklen’s inn, but in a case that may give hope to the Owens, Byrnes later appeared before the BZA to lay out her plans to resume serving breakfasts in her own home, and the reasons why she should be allowed to do it. She gave a persuasive interpretation of code, and a dozen or more citizens from the town testified on her behalf about how wonderful her breakfasts are. While the specifics of the BZA’s decision are too lengthy to address, suffice it to say code was creatively interpreted in such a way that she could resume breakfasts at her home in a limited capacity.

“You’re not going to have GFS semi-trucks delivering to your house this time, are you?” asked one BZA member.
“No,” she said.

A Motley Collection of Locals and Mercenary Vacationers: the 7th Annual Women’s Armwrestling Contest of Ocracoke Island

Championship match - Fat Jesus vs. the BakerCoauthor credit and special thanks to P. Williams

The crowd and campers

The crowd and campers

It was perhaps the most raucous if not the raunchiest public radio benefit one could imagine. Picture this – a campground behind a Texaco, hidden from the road, aluminum bleachers and a makeshift bar encircling a makeshift fighting ring. Golf carts and cars are parked in equal measure in the dirt parking lot and alongside the road. Spectators are gathered under the evening sun, drinking everything from Coors Light to Bud Light from a makeshift bar made of discarded 6×6 beams. Everything is surrounded by huge camper trailers with accouterments indicating varying degrees of permanence – string lights, laundry lines, lawn furniture. The nexus of excitement is the pod of costumed combatants bouncing giddily next to a golf cart next to the ring. The warriors are bedecked in everything from Dali moustaches to bloodied wedding dresses. A comingled sense of exuberant fun and the tension of impending competition colored the air. The 7th Annual Women’s Armwrestling Contest was held June 18th, 2015 on Ocracoke Island, a semi-sanctioned armwrestling event sponsored by Combat Armsports and benefitting WOVV 90.1, the local public radio station. Combatant sign-ups were still taking place as spectators took their seats – anyone who felt lucky enough could try to best a motley collection of locals and mercenary vacationers.

Ocracoke Island is a small, thin stretch of land in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The island is sixteen miles long and less than a mile at its widest and is accessible only by ferry. It is an old, small sea town whose relative quaintness is maintained by a National Seashore designation and strict building codes. (One builder tried to flaunt these regulations and was required to dismantle the entire top floor of the enormous home he built.) But despite its clapboard homes and the infinite amount of basketed, slowly-pedaled bikes, Ocracoke is also known for its legacy of piracy. It’s the place where Blackbeard the Pirate was not only beheaded but whose headless body swam around his ship seven times before it sank. Ocracokers are hardy just by dint of living there – hurricanes blow through with dispiriting regularity, causing evacuation and a proliferation of stinking muck when floodwaters recede, and the mosquitos are stuff of legend. Armwrestling, then, is not a cultivated hobby but a demonstration of inborn strength.

The island has approximately 970 permanent residents, but given the ever-changing stream of weeklong vacationers, it’s rare that a strong local presence is detected. (The average summer week ratchets the population to seven thousand.) Local flavor wasn’t missing at this event, however. The armwrestling tournament is one of the premier events on the island. At least half of the 2015 competitors were residents of Ocracoke, and this was a lower percentage than most years. Most everyone else in attendance was strongly encouraged to attend, if not sign up, by the waitress or clerk or local working at whatever facility the vacationer was patronizing. The camaraderie of contestants who work and swim and party together and the fun of an event clearly anticipated by the people that live there gave spectators the sense that they were sitting in on the proceedings of a different world.

(Though it’s not just vacationers that get a glimpse of the surreal. Locals are no doubt aware of guests endowed with oversized personalities. One guy in the audience recognized someone making a recent splash – “Hey! The Thong Girl is here!” noting a young woman wearing nigh-invisible bottoms all day every day throughout town. A sight hearkening of the evening’s event was a guy jogging up and down the main road wearing a sweatsuit and weights tied to his hands – a serious boxer doing serious training.)

Clearly it was a different world no matter where you came from. The stage was made of four rickety fold-out stage rectangles with nylon rope running through holes drilled in PVC pipe turnbuckles. Special thanks were given by the announcer to the “guy who spent all day in the sun setting up this fine venue.” A whiteboard sat in the grass, leaning against the announcers booth, the brackets penned with numerous cross-outs and revisions. In the first of many such instances, the PA kicked on with a startling burst of noise. The transitions between music and announcing always featured one of the two being significantly louder than the other, as if to shock you into attention, and a balance was never quite reached during the entirety of the event.

Completed Bracket

Completed Bracket

No matter – attention was grabbed and the contestants were summoned to the ring to learn the rules. Locals came from the ringside party and the brave vacationer-competitors left groups of friends in the bleachers. Incredibly, a professional arm wrestler had been brought into referee the event. He was the Man, the Myth, the 220lb armwrestling champ from Sunbury, North Carolina, a beefy toned and tanned guy with the incongruous name Giles Russell. Everyone gathered in the ring around a professional armwrestling table furnished by Combat Armsports. He imparted how it would all go down.

The ceremony was brief, and Julie, alias So Fresh So Clean Clean in reference to the hotel-white towels wrapped around her torso and her hair, summarized how you play for her friends.

“You have to break the plane of a small cushion,” she said.

A tournament-ready armwrestling table has two cushions on the outside of an open battlefield, where combatants’ elbows rest. There is an open area in the middle, with two strikepads on either side. These are the cushions a wrestler has to touch with her opponent’s hand. Vertical poles with grips are next to the elbow pads. These are held by the non-wrestling hand for leverage. As soon as a hand touches the strikepad (or wrist in the case of combatants with forearm-size disparity), the bout is over.

“Apparently somebody in Vegas broke their hand,” So Fresh said. “Last time I arm wrestled was when I was ten. Maybe I’ll discover a hidden talent!”

So Fresh took a swig from her beer. Approximately 85% of the audience was drinking. So Fresh was with a group of friends from Nashville, New York, and Maryland. They were staying on Cape Hatteras and had planned on a day trip to Ocracoke but when their server at Howard’s Pub was so effusive in her recommendation of the tournament that they decided to stay and throw one of themselves into the fray.

So Fresh was calm, jovial, a little tipsy perhaps. There was the faintest glimmer of intimidation.

“Dalí looks tough. How should I trash talk?”

“Call her ‘Noodle Arms!’”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all.”

Her friends also offered coaching tips.

“Let them get ahead a bit then take them out.”

“Swing a folding chair!”

Another squall of feedback made everyone jump. The announcer rattled off a list of the sponsors, which was practically half the businesses on the island. He gave props to WOVV and said that the event would be starting momentarily. In years past, the tournament was a benefit for both the radio station and the fire department. In 2012, $3,200 was raised for the radio station and $1200 for the fire department, but the event now benefits the radio station exclusively. The tournament is held every year on the anniversary of the station’s first broadcast.

Ultimately fifteen contestants had signed up. A few were recurring combatants. This was the third tournament for Fat Jesus, for example. Those who were new were encouraged to make up a nom de guerre and an exciting back story. All contestants could rest a little easier knowing that Karm “the Arm” Laton retired after winning the last four tournaments straight.

The roster for the evening included the following:

Armed and Dangerous Archer – who had machine guns made out of electrical tape on her biceps and a white cape with a machine gun on it and the phrase “come and take it” held around her shoulders with handcuffs. Her “favorite athlete is herself,” according to the announcer.

Salvador Dalía – she had a Dalí moustache on her face made out of electrical tape, blue hair, and stars tattooed on one temple. Two giant melting clocks hung from her chest. “She’s here to melt your clock!” the announcer noted.

The Baker – walked up to the ring throwing bread crumbs into the audience. The puffs of powder were backlit majestically by the spotlights. She was wearing an apron and is a Pisces.

Dorothy the Dominator – wore a St. Paul’s Girl-style dress and drank a lot of Corona. She had an ankle brace but no shoes. She was announced as being from Oz.

So Fresh So Clean Clean – wore towels around her hair and torso. From New York by way of Ohio. She was skeptical of another combatant’s claim of Ohio roots and took this as some kind of obscure taunt. At least six friends were there to cheer her on. “Fresh outta the shower!” yelled one.

Wildcard – had mom jeans, hair bun, and a sleeveless button-up with what seemed to be a hipstery print. She was “raised by wolves in Nepal” and brought a Red Stripe up to the table with her when she wrestled. She is the one who So Fresh thought was lying about her Ohio origins.

Fat Jesus – She had a swimsuit top under one of those shirts whose sides are cut out so profoundly that the bottom of the shirt could tear at any second. The Zach Galifianakis design on her shirt would lead one to believe that her name is a reference to the movie the Hangover. She was wearing high-heeled sandals and “still lives at home.”

Shark Attack – she danced her way up to the stage to tropical pop songs and gnashed her teeth and made intimidating shark fin gestures at her opponents. She was wearing a bloodied dress and was revealed to have two prosthetics legs from the knees down. She occasionally took one off and menaced the crowd with it.

Demolition Dolly – wore pocketless blue jorts and a baseball comprised what someone in the crowd deemed early-2000s fashion. She belatedly donned an appropriately huge and blonde Dolly Parton wig. “She had breast reduction surgery last week!”

Soo Well – was sent up with a bunch of high-fives from her friends. She had billowy hippie pants. “Her father was a pig farmer.”

Hair of the Dog – wore her salt and pepper hair long and windblown. She was bedecked in all white and didn’t talk to anyone.

Crystal the Bone Crusher – looked like a tough older biker, if bikers wore Teva sandals, with an arm tattoo that may or may not have been real. She “idolizes Winnie the Pooh.”

Danger Ranger – is a Sagittarius from the Pennsylvania section of Appalachia. Her hair was a battle-ready ponytail and she wore a Yellowstone Park tee.

Banana Slug – she laughed a lot and fought with a phone in her back pocket. She “used to be a pacifist before the armwrestling tournament and is the captain of both an alien and pirate ship.”

Green Terror – seemingly the youngest of the bunch and a late addition. As such, she had to fight two people back to back in the second round. She is a vegan – “vegetables killed her parents so now she kills vegetables!”

Everyone was thus introduced, and with a classic ‘LET’S GET IT ON!’ the armwrestling was underway.

Round 1

Wildcard's Round 1 victory over Banana Slug

Wildcard’s Round 1 victory over Banana Slug

Salvador Dalía trounced Dorothy the Dominator in under a second. Soo Well was so evenly matched with So Fresh that there was a stalemate for minutes until Soo Well finally won. The bout between Shark Attack and Demolition Dolly was restarted after a false start, then Shark Attack won in less than a second. “I’m all arms!” she yelled. Fat Jesus sidled up to the table against Hair of the Dog, whose super, super-serious expression was no help. The losers of the last two rounds looked like they were actually mad. The Baker threw out crumbs as she walked to the ring. She fought Crystal the Bone Crusher and won. The announcer made a brief announcement. “Look into your pockets! Aside from the money should be donating to WOVV, somebody lost an iPod!” Armed and Dangerous Archer beat Danger Ranger fairly quickly and then went back and hugged her sons. After a serious positioning of the arms by Russell, Wilcard beat Banana Slug.

Post-round, Russell was encircled by wrestlers and fans. He was imparting his wisdom to anyone who had questions. The atmosphere was one of revelry and intense concentration, depending on the role for the night. Demolition Dolly and Hair of the Dog listened attentively, having lost their first bouts rather quickly. (Though to be fair they did lose to competitors who made it to the last rounds.) They both had the look of someone really trying to internalize something, as if stalwart concentration insures the ability to put it into practice. They were the most serious competitors; the pained expressions and their stony silence indicated that they were taking this really seriously.

“You can slide your elbow all over the table. You just can’t pick it up,” Russell said. “So when you’re pullin’ and she’s pullin’ and you realize you have all this space behind you, start pullin’ her back. The next move should be a drag. Open her arm up. A subtle drag. Do it subtly or you may open your own arm up. Good arm wrestlin’ is keepin’ ‘em locked nice and tight then start draggin.’ You wanna take everything down together, like this. [Here he showed her a fluid takedown motion, their hands interlocked like they were wrasslin.’] Not doing that is not good armwrestling technique – it’s ‘hurt yourself bad technique.’ I want everyone to have fun and an injury would be a huge buzzkill.

“A lot of people who haven’t seen it professionally think, ‘you’re using your body – that’s cheatin’!’ but no – as long as your elbow doesn’t come up and as long as your shoulder doesn’t go below the tabletop, it’s legal. You don’t want to twist your humerus – ”

A spectator in a flowered button-up shirt interjected, eager to show off his anatomical knowledge: “It’s shoulder blades, right? It’s all shoulder blades and latissimus dorsi, right? And the anterior deltoid?”

Russell sidestepped the question by acknowledging it then answering a slightly different question as to not embarrass the guy’s error and eagerness to name drop some muscles. Russell continued coaching Demolition Dolly, twisting her arm one way then another and pointing out different points of flexion. Any future arm wrestlers should note that reliance on brute strength is a novice’s mistake. It’s just as much about the leverage you can get. Ambitious students should study physics. An image Russell posted on his Facebook page reads: ‘Armwrestling – where gym junky ego is destroyed.’

Admirers with cameras ready

Admirers with cameras ready

Much is thought of Russell’s expertise. It is his fourth time reffing the Ocracoke tournament. Arrangements were made for his family to accompany him. His wife, daughter, and a thinner version of Russell who the announcer kept referring to as Young Giles were there with him.

His wife Tabitha was photographing the event and sat near him as a cadre of women with wine glasses filmed his impromptu lessons, giggling as they asked him to flex again and again. Young Giles looked on in awe. He was a little shy still but was no doubt eagerly awaiting the time he’ll be able to reap the benefits of the family sport. (The women slyly asked Russell the Elder about his leg placement during matches.) Young Giles was there as an assistant, and between rounds he had to take on a seemingly unending line of kid competitors taking up the offer to get on stage and arm wrestle him, including a battle with one of two kids in the audience that night that for some reason looked disturbingly like adults. Papa Giles gave his son a little nudge here and there to tell him he should let a kid win. Even as a teenager Young Giles was gracious in defeat. In one particularly endearing scene, Russell called on his daughter to come on stage and arm wrestle her brother. She leaped with excitement and ran up to the table and after a long struggle beat her brother. She strutted around in victory and then Young Giles held her over the ropes as she flexed for the crowd. The crowd went wild. She was in on the family sport too. She told a nearby spectator “I wrestled him all day in the hotel and I beat him. Don’t mess with me!” The last line was delivered with surprisingly sincere menace.

Round 2

The championship belt

The championship belt, worn for approximately 27 minutes

Green Terror fell like a chomped vegetable to Wildcard. Dorothy took off her flip-flops as she took on So Fresh. Dorothy won and So Fresh pretended to cry. Soo Well lost to Dalía in what was a “live art performance.” “I get really pumped up,” Dalía said. “That’s not to say I train – I’m just naturally this awesome. I’m totally competitive – haven’t you seen me?” The announcer mentioned that the winner would get to wear the belt for “twenty-seven minutes” before giving it back. Despite the advice from Giles, Demolition Dolly was taken down by Hair of the Dog, who apparently did benefit from his lesson. Fat Jesus fought the Baker – it was a match between two of the strongest contestants and the hefty savior won. Crystal the Bone Crusher fought Danger Ranger in a match that featured unchanging expressions and eye-contact broken only after what seemed like minutes of the most extreme strain. Danger Ranger won. The PA played a funny “Fwee!” sound at every loss from now until the end. “We got someone from morning radio here!” said the announcer, even though he was the one in control of sound effects. Armed and Dangerous Archer, whose “guns are banned in twenty-six states,” fought Shark Attack. From this point on Shark Attack made a point of wiggling her behind at the crowd and tucking her dress into her lacy blue underwear. Despite her taunts and fierce expression as her opponent walked up to the stage, Archer won. Banana Slug slimed Green Terror.

After the round, the announcer bid people try their luck against Giles when the tournament was over. “Anyone want to take him? He’s out of shape.” Russell affected a slouch and pulled down on his bicep like it was drooping.

Round 3

Wildcard vs. Salvador Dalia, Round 3

Wildcard vs. Salvador Dalia, Round 3

Soo Well lost to Dorothy the Dominator and was eliminated. Wildcard flirted with the ref but still lost to Salvador Dalía. Spectator A: “She does that every time.” B: “What?” A: “Win.” All of the contestants ran up to the ring for the match between Danger Ranger and Hair of the Dog. Hair lost and the FWEE! effect played. She was eliminated. Shark Attack, who “loves foot rubs,” shook her booty, tucked her dress, eliminated Banana Slug, and then grabbed her chest and stuck her chin out at the crowd. A new explosion sound effect played. After noting that she “lost her pet monkey but collects monkeys and giraffes,” Fat Jesus beat Armed and Dangerous Archer. The Baker, an Ocracoke native, eliminated Dorothy. A guy yelled out a taunt that made the crowd laugh. He thought he could do better, apparently, as he said “No, no that wasn’t good” about his own comment.

After the match Shark Attack was seen reclining on a golf cart, throwing back drinks and just sucking down a cigarette. She and Armed and Dangerous then got up and danced with their kids. Giles arm wrestled Young Giles and was coaching him with fatherly affection. A guy from the audience ran up and challenged the older Giles and was quickly – and expectedly – dispatched to hell. A new admirer came up to Giles and was dancing as close as she could to him. He went along with it for a second and then excused himself, saying “I’m an arm wrestler, not a dancer!”

Round 4

Danger Ranger was up against Shark Attack, who did her now-standard dance-and-tuck (the sixth time her dress was tucked into her underwear, according to one observer). Shark Attack won and DQ’d Danger. Then the battle of high hair buns – Wildcard vs. the Baker. The Baker’s bun was stronger. Tacky rock music played the whole time, including “Happy Happy Birthday.” Fat Jesus fought Dalía; both were up to this point undefeated. But it was a quick fight – Fat Jesus won. Shark Attack fought again, this time against Armed and Dangerous Archer. Despite her physical taunts and chest-grabbing, Armed and Dangerous further bloodied her dress and kicked her out of the tournament.

Round 5

“Ocracoke is a community of costume lovers and connoisseurs. We have lots of reasons dress up as much as possible. We take the costume contest more seriously than the actual armwrestling,” explained Salvador Dalía. Easy to say when you are crushing the contest physically and sartorially, perhaps, but it was true that Ocracoke is a lover of costumes. Past costumes included a full-body rabbit costume with huge mask/helmet and a muscle suit with hand-sewn muscles. Before Round 5 started, the winners of the costume contest were announced.

3rd) a now regularly dressed So Fresh So Clean Clean
2nd) Shark Attack, who accepted the honor with trademark shark grimaces and sneers at the audience.
and
1st) Salvador Dalía!

Winners received a gift bag of indeterminate contents.

The costume winners were shuffled off and the next round started. The Baker roasted Archer, rendering her stale for good. The Baker fought another round right away, flinging flour as she walked up to the stage, and knocked Dalía out for good but granting Dalía a third place finish. Fat Jesus didn’t have to fight this round because she was undefeated. Round 5 determined who would fight her for the title, and the lucky contestant was The Baker.

Title Match

At this point the mosquitos were doing their customary duty and annoying the fat bejeesus out of everyone. Supposedly their role in the ecosystem is critical – food for bats and other creatures and all that – but the constant biting typically leads one to completely ignore this alleged benefit and wish them all an equally annoying death by a thousand bites.

The rented lights illuminated the ring with patterns straight out of a middle school dance. The Baker stayed on stage, her swimmer’s back and toned arms even more menacing under the interplay of shadow and light. Fat Jesus strode up to the stage in her high-heeled sandals, face ruddy with combat fatigue and drink. The crowd was on its feet and increasingly festive if not drunk. Even a kid with a big arm cast tripped over a pole, and another kid somehow tripped and got his body and shirt tangled around the base of a light. The crowd was laughing and buzzing with a mosquito-like thirst for blood. “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” they yelled. “We love you Jesus!” “C’mon Jesus!” “WWJD? WWJD?!” The last comment was yelled by the guy with reliably funny shouts but who wasn’t too sure of his own sense of humor. A friend said, “That was a good one,” indicating a friend group with a surprisingly honest appraisal of their own quips and heckles. The Baker was hailed too: “Bake me a dozen!” “She’s got strong forearms from stirring flour!”

Your 2015 Champion FAT JESUS

Your 2015 Champion FAT JESUS!

The Baker had to win twice for the title since she had already lost once and Fat Jesus hadn’t lost at all. The Baker stood valiantly, hoping that the Gods of Armwrestling would shine down on her. Would it be one of those classic underdog stories? Would her pure desire be enough to turn the tide? Alas! No! The Baker was dispatched with the power one could expect from the unbeaten maniac known as Fat Jesus!

The belt was presented to the victorious Fat Jesus for photo-ops and to bestow its power to the champion that earned it, at least for twenty-seven minutes. Giles presented her the belt but it fell apart as he handed it to her, clanking loudly onto the ring. Fat Jesus threw her hands up in the classic pose of the victorious, and Giles held the busted belt around her waist. Locals and vacationers celebrated her success. Do we have a new Karm “the Arm” Laton in the making? Perhaps! Only next year will tell, at the 8th Annual Womens Armwrestling extravaganza on the one and only Ocracoke Island!

The Flying Octopus

Dispatch from the Outer Banks –

Meanwhile on Okracoke Island

Meanwhile on Ocracoke Island

Recently on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, a sixty-foot octopus was flying above a family’s encampment on the first beach outside of town. The family had their towels and umbrellas and fishing supplies as most beachgoers do, but they were also fielding questions of amused passersby. Their octopus was flying halfway between the ground and a geometric craft another thirty feet above, two giant kites perfectly representing the family’s whimsical hobby. The octopus’s eight tentacles fluttered playfully in the breeze, and two googly eyes took it all in as the creature spun on its line.

“My mother-in-law makes them,” the Mom of the troupe said, “in a little room in her house on a little sewing machine.”

The kites are two of over one hundred in the family’s collection. Her mother-in-law has sold a few to those persistent in wanting to buy one, but all are initially made for the fun of it. The family selected the octopus and the box kite carefully before they left Ohio for the Outer Banks, taking a bunch out of storage in their garage and going over which ones hadn’t been flown in a while. Their kites are made of parachute silk and most are larger than life – the family has everything from an eighty-foot frog to a hundred-foot spinner. The frog weighs twenty-five pounds folded and bagged. (Storage demands no special conditions aside from keeping the kites dry.) The end result is tremendously impressive considering the kites can’t be seen in all their glory (or potential mistakes) until they are billowing aloft.

Kite DiagramThe Mom said that circular kites like the octopus are fairly easy to fly as long as there are holes for air to enter and exit. The exact physics of it all evades her, but the octopus essentially flies like a giant cephalopodian windsock. But geometric kites require a little more planning. “Certain angles” have to be calculated and many more strings and outflow holes have to be taken into consideration. The box kite they were flying had at least four compartments. Six cords made up the bridle – the set of strings between the kite – and the line, which is the cord running back down to Earth. (The part where the strings of the bridle meet the line is called the “connecting point,” if you’ll pardon the obscure kite-fan parlance.)

But the real difficultly lies in keeping such a huge kite tethered to Earth.

“See that drag mark there? That’s from the kite pulling the sandbag cause there wasn’t enough sand in it. See that other one? That’s where we dragged it back. I had to sit on it as we filled the bag with more sand.”

The drag marks zigged and zagged for about thirty feet. After the octopus’s near escape, a ditch was dug and the sandbag was filled with five-hundred pounds of sand. A wall was built around the outside of the ditch so the sandbag would have to travel out of the ditch and over the hump if the wind picked up again.

Adelir Antônio de Carli, 1966-2008

Adelir Antônio de Carli, 1966-2008

(The strength of giant kites is nothing to be sneezed at. In November 2010, gale force winds rocketed a kite surfer in France in from the beach, sucked him high into the air, dragged him across at least three rooftops and a pier, and then dropped him fifty feet into a courtyard, killing him instantly. And somewhat relatedly, a priest in Brazil was carried away in 2008 by one thousand balloons. He had successfully completed a balloon stunt before – his nickname was Padre Baloeiro, roughly translating to Father Balloon – and was undertaking his fatal trip to raise money for a spiritual rest stop for truckers. He made it to 19,685 feet and they stopped hearing from him. Pieces of balloons were found soon after contact was lost, and his legs were found floating in the ocean two and a half months later.)

Fortunately everyone was able to enjoy the kite without it escaping or dragging anyone over the dunes. An already incredible day on the beach was made that much more fantastical by the family’s additions. The Mom said that as far as she knew there are no regulations prohibiting the flying of giant kites. She looked a little eager to get back to her family after curious beachgoers interrogated her for minutes on end, but it was no doubt rewarding to inspire so many smiles. “They’re a curiosity, that’s for sure!” she laughed, and then walked back to her umbrella and a waiting fishing pole.

Today is Tomorrow: 24 Hours of Groundhog Day

That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers! It’s GROUNDHOG DAY!”

Groundhog Day posterIt is a genius meta-challenge: do you have what it takes to subject yourself to twenty-four hours of a movie in which the protagonist is himself subjected to a horrifying twenty-four hour loop? Would you lose your mind doing it or have a total blast? These are questions posed every February 2nd by the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio, when they host their annual Groundhog Day viewing party/endurance marathon. The movie in question is of course Groundhog Day, and they challenge you to watch it twelve times in a row. Completing the marathon yields a year’s worth of movie tickets, a very coveted prize considering the average theater’s tragicomic ticket prices. On the contrary, a ticket to the Gateway event is only fifteen bucks, and fifteen bucks for twenty four free movie passes is certainly a gamble worth taking, to say nothing of the singular weirdness of staying in a movie theater all night with three hundred other entranced revelers.

7660 days have passed since Groundhog Day was released on February 12th, 1993. The movie chronicles the surreal hell of Phil Connors, a TV weatherman played by Bill Murray, who learns some important life lessons when he finds himself reliving Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA, over and over and over again. Andie MacDowell plays the sweetheart TV producer who inspires him to be a better man and Chris Elliot plays the unnerving odd guy Chris Elliot is known for. Initially Bill Murray is excited at the surreal turn of events, as he realizes he can steal money and perfect his wooing techniques, but he grows increasingly despondent when it doesn’t seem like the loop will ever end. The only way out seems to be to win Andie’s heart by becoming a good person, and some genuinely warm n’ fuzzy moments makes up the last chunk of the movie as this transformation takes place. But it takes Phil a long time to get to this point, and the movie becomes a bit darker when you realize the enormity of what his character is actually facing. At minimum, it is estimated that he relives Groundhog Day for at least forty years, though Stephen Tobolowsky, the guy who plays Ned the Insurance Salesman, said one of the writers “felt something like 23 days were represented in the movie, [but the total time Murray is trapped lasted] over 10,000 years.”

The same day over and over again for 10,000 years – not that my friends and I were worried that watching a movie twelve times in a row would be equally as maddening, but the prospect of watching the same movie twelve times in a row was kind of daunting: an entire day in one place, in the same seats, with hundreds of other people eating, farting, snoring and talking, all of us experiencing the difficulties inherent in doing the same weird thing over and over again. My good chum Pat and I were both new to the contest, but our friends Tess, Afton, and Kevin were old hands and explained that the viewings break down like this:

1-4: You sleep through most of them.
5: “This is a good movie.”
6: “This is the best movie ever made.”
7: “…”
8-10: “I can’t comprehend anything that is happening in this movie.”
11-12: Fun because everyone is going crazy, but also excruciating because you’re almost done.

I figured my point of no return would be 16 hours – I had to stay if I made it that far, and Pat assured me that he would convince me to stay. I legitimately didn’t know what to expect.

 

Dylan and Pat in the building

Dylan and Pat in the building

****

The rules of the challenge are as follows:

  • You must be present in the theater for every screening of Groundhog Day in its entirety.
  • Cell phones may be carried into the theater, but must be powered down during the screenings.
  • No laptops, tablets, or other devices are permitted in the theater.
  • Your lanyard must be in your possession at all times during the marathon. This is very important, as the lanyard is punched after every viewing, and you must have all twelve punches to win the tickets.
  • Every time Phil says “Ned”, you must say “Bing!”

“I think it would be funny if they wouldn’t let you socialize, like they make you watch it,” Pat said. “I want them to fucking crack down. I want them to make it a challenge.” I know Pat would fare well in a contest like this, even if it were one of those sinister experiments where you are strapped to a chair and your eyes are pried open as you are bombarded with all kinds of horrible sights and sounds. Pat is up to stuff like that – he has a competitive drive that has made him successful business owner and allows him to be infuriatingly good at every sport. People come to the event in pajamas with pillows and blankets; he firmly considers the people stretched out on sleeping bags in the front of the theater to be cheating. How hard can it be when you are essentially allowed to camp?

A valid point, but I don’t think the theater has psychological trauma in mind when they host the event. The marathon isn’t intended to toughen you up mentally; it’s supposed to be ridiculous fun, and it is. Attendees are encouraged – If not expected – to join in chanting lines, which range from quotable insults to a horrified “UGH!!” when poor Andie MacDowell makes a woodchuck face at Bill Murray. The experience inspires exuberant narration, and attendees yell whatever they want from the anonymity of the theater. A lot of the commentary is genuinely hilarious, but this anonymity also lends itself to some cringe-worthy unfunniness, attempts at humor that make you feel bad for the person who said them. But no worries, you can try again soon – the open invite for audience participation gives everyone a second chance to shine, and indeed, there is nothing quite as affirming as cracking up the people in the rows around you.

****

The first American reference to Groundhog Day comes from a diary entry from 1841, where it is explained that if the groundhog emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, winter will last another six weeks. This is the same tradition as it stands today. Appropriately, the diary is that of guy from Pennsylvania. The world’s most popular rodent arbiter resides in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the movie takes place and where real life Groundhog Day crowds have numbered up to 40,000 deep. The tradition seems to come from a mix of ancient weather lore involving prognosticating animals and contrasting calendrical systems. The pagan festival Imbolc celebrated the seasonal turning point on February 1st, but other traditions held that spring did not begin until the Vernal Equinox, about seven weeks after Groundhog Day, the traditional first day of spring for us in the US. A groundhog or hedgehog was used as a way to settle the disparities between the two calendars, and either choice he makes corresponds to one of the calendars’ first day of spring. Groundhog Day organizers say that the Punxsutawney Phil’s forecasts are accurate 75 to 90 percent of the time. Thirty-three percent accuracy could be expected by chance, and a Canadian study unfortunately shows that weather pattern predictions made on Groundhog Day are right only 37% of the time. Buzzkill scientists from the National Climatic Data Center have described the forecasts as “on average, inaccurate,” saying that the groundhog “has shown no talent for predicting the arrival of spring, especially in recent years.” (Spoiler alert: in the movie, Punxsutawney Phil predicts that winter will last another six weeks.)

Our night started off not in Punxsutawney but in a restaurant next to the theater called Mad Mex. Tremendous plates of nachos were necessary to carry us through at least the next couple of hours, and after 10:00pm everything is half-off. The waiter noted that the new margarita flavor was good because “nobody has sent it back yet,” and it was thus ordered and consumed. Not too long into our meal, a guy sat down next to the hostess’s stand, right across from our table, and promptly broke down in tears. “I hate boys,” he said, explaining that his boyfriend puts everyone else before him.

Patrons of Mad Mex soon began getting up and leaving. It was clear where they were going. They were carrying sleeping bags and backpacks and were dressed in sweats and pajamas, and some people even had laundry baskets full of games and enough food for the next 24 hours. We too left in order to claim the perfect spot. The sad guy from Mad Mex was in an impassioned argument with his presumptive boyfriend on the sidewalk when we walked outside, and they too would likely enter a time warp of their own, arguing in endless circles as they tried to sort out the complications of love.

****

The Marathon Begins…

Back row clique
Back row clique!

12:00 – We quickly realized that the undertaking wouldn’t be as big a deal as we thought – we sat in the middle of the topmost row, with nobody on either side of us for at least three seats. We were able to put up armrests and stretch out and sleep as freely as we wanted to. Sitting in the back row seemed crucial to our success since nobody could hang their stinky feet over our heads, and we weren’t in danger (or as much danger, at least) of something like the hurricane-level of puke that annihilated the area behind some seats in the middle of the theater. But I did begin to understand why the challenge might yet be pretty difficult. Stills from the movie that precede each showing tell you how many times you’ve seen the movie and how many you have left. These stills are supplemented by key soundtrack music played on a loop, so not only did you hear the same songs multiple times throughout the course of the movie but you’re stuck listening to them over and over again before the movie even starts. Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” was followed by a ridiculous number called “the Pennsylvania Polka.” The tradition of clapping along with the latter started as soon as it began playing over the still, and we caught on to that aspect of the event.

Welcomes were given by the staff and the rules were read. The concession stand would be open the entire twenty-four hours and alcohol sales would stop at 2:30am but would begin again at 6am. The first viewing felt more like a normal night out at the theater than the beginning of a ridiculous challenge. I hadn’t seen this movie since 2010 (I remember this specifically because I was housesitting for a guy that had it in his collection) but I pretty quickly fell asleep. I woke up in time to see a surprisingly amazing truck explosion. The truck drives off a cliff and smashes below; its intense smash is satisfying and incredible. The resulting explosion is great too – big, full, multi-layered, good expansion, deep oranges and reds – as is the way the gate bursts open when he drives through it. Note that the grill of the truck breaks when this happens. It became a scene I greatly looked forward to.

2:00am – I was wide awake as the movie began again. On top of the quoted lines and random quips, nonstop talking and settling occur for the first fifteen to twenty minutes of this and every subsequent showing. The atmosphere was that of a giant slumber party.

Pat was lying on the floor resting; he overhears the scene where the local yokel shows Bill Murray a half-full or half-empty glass and says Billy Murray looks like a half-empty kind of guy. “That’s the whole message of the film!” Pat realized. He told me with the sureness of an inebriated philosopher that Groundhog Day is a metaphor for our search for happiness – you could look at the groundhog’s augury like glorious spring is just six weeks away, or that winter will brutally oppress us for six more. In other words, look on the bright side! Life is what you make it! Pat imparted this wisdom and fell back asleep.

4:00am – I was tired and kind of grouchy as the third viewing began. I was worried that perishable food I brought would go bad before I had a chance to eat it but I was too full to keep eating. Nachos were raffled off by theater staff. I noticed that the stunt double used when Bill Murray jumps off the tower looks like Ben Stiller, and that the bath water Murray sits in to electrocute himself is probably ice cold, judging from the cold shower sequence earlier in the movie. I began appreciating the attention to time-related details, like taking into account how doing thing A for a few seconds longer the second time means that subsequent thing B would happen differently the second time around. But sometimes the movie wasn’t as accurate as I’d like in this regard (some events take place in the exact same way regardless of how long Bill Murray takes to do the thing that precedes them), but I realized that I had ten more viewings to obsess over these disparities and so I would be better if I put them out of my mind. It’s just a movie, anyway, right?

Groundhog Day factoid

Groundhog Day factoid

6:00am – I realized I hadn’t even seen the movie all the way through yet. There are scenes that I didn’t remember seeing the first three times around, and there are scenes I saw between naps that I wasn’t sure where/why/how they fit in the narrative. An announcement was made that the concession stand had started serving breakfast burritos. The paper towel dispenser in the men’s bathroom was jammed, but the front had been pried open by attendees desperate to dry their hands.

8:00am – “Now it gets difficult,” a veteran told me, “Most of the sleeping you’ll do has already been done.” I was increasingly annoyed by the peppy song that accompanies the opening credits. The song is called “Weatherman” and was co-written by the film’s director, Harold Ramis. Heard nowadays, the song is totally anachronistic – it is one of those catchy, distinctly American-sounding rock songs that play during the opening credits of comedies from the 80s and 90s. (Which are themselves a very distinct and sorely missed breed.) But I soldiered on. I got an encouraging text from a friend at 8:50: “You can do it!” My parents also cheered me on when the night got started.

10:00am – Somebody nearby started a story that begins with “I didn’t work at PetCo but…” but unfortunately I don’t hear the rest. After five viewings, I still hadn’t seen the movie all the way through, but from this point on, I watched the movie pretty much in its entirety from this viewing until the end of the challenge. The ten o’clock showing was different, as there was markedly more shouting, clapping, and merrymaking, and it increased with every viewing.

Unfortunately this increase in volume also applied to our neighbors and their wellspring of criminally unfunny comments. It was kind of awkward because other unfunny comments fade into the darkness but you are hyper-aware of failed humor when the perpetrators are only a few seats away from you. There is a scene where Bill Murray says he is going to go back to his room and read Hustler; our neighbors yelled “Go read Hustler – everyone likes to see naked ladies!”

12:00pm – I found that I always happened to be looking up at the screen when Andie MacDowell’s name is listed in the opening credits. I also found that the opening sequence of clouds rolling backwards is simple but really cool, and somewhat haunting. I was also able to study McDowell’s distinct mouth, as her twenty-foot visage was on the screen pretty frequently. People in the audience continued chanting at choice moments: each scene with Needlenose Ned the Head is repeated word for word every time. The diss Chris Elliot delivers about the Home Shopping Network is always awarded with a tremendous “OOOOOOoooohhhhh!” Everyone clapped in time with the slaps of the slap sequence and everyone claps sarcastically when the waiter drops his tray. Brian Doyle-Murray’s speech as the mayor is also a beloved moment in the film, as attendees love to help him call Punxsutawney Phil the “Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators.” The increasing dollar amounts are chanted when Bill Murray get auctioned off as a desirable bachelor.

2:00pm – Two young kids were in attendance with their dad. One of the two became a sort of celebrity for the occasion, as he was the first to lead claps and cheers and even yelled a bunch of comments of his own, at the screen and in response to other people who are yelling stuff too. Between showings, everyone around him observed that not only was he having a FaceTime chat with his Grandma but that they were talking in another language. Everyone who saw this looked at each other knowingly, nodding at how hard this kid rules. As the day wore on, the two kids and the dad change seats from time to time, leading one person in the audience to ask “Hey! Where’d that kid go?!” in fear that the family would miss part of the action, or, worst case scenario, that they had left, which would have been a bummer for the kids but also worrisome to the rest of the crowd, for what would it mean for their own endurance if their totemic spirit decided he had finally had enough? Not to worry – his commentary resumed quickly enough, just from different seats.

Pat noted that the scene in which Bill Murray steals the truck/varmint-naps the groundhog occurs almost exactly one hour into the film. We took this into consideration for the rest of the viewings, almost like a breather that the movie is two-thirds of the way over. The coffee served by the movie theater is surprisingly good, and refills are free. Pat noted that Bill Murray gives the finger to the camera – during the second newscast he does on the first day, the 3-2-1 countdown ends with 1 being his middle finger. Lots of details like this are noticed, including the unsettling layer of reverb/creepy frequency placed over top the ‘Pennsylvania Polka’ when Bill Murray gets freaked out.

“Ohhhhhhh…SIX!!!!”

4:00pm – This was the wildest showing yet. The hootin’ and hollerin’ reached a hilarious, exuberant pitch. The audience has taken to yelling “SIX!!!” every time Bill Murray’s alarm clock goes off at 6:00am. A wag in the audience also yelled “3:02!!” when that time was shown on a clock. One of my favorite shots is the giant alarm clock face switching from 5:59 to 6:00. I found myself yelling along with everyone without even intending to.

Our genius neighbors got told for the second time to put away their electronic devices during the showing of the movie. They take huge offense to this despite the rules’ clear prohibition on devices, and the scolding was a topic they discussed with the utmost derision every twenty minutes for the rest of the contest. “We’ll give her an anti-bitch coupon if she’ll let us use our phones,” they snickered. The also took to calling the attendant a “device Nazi.”

The audience’s sense of humor reflected the fact that we’d been there for sixteen hours: “That’s Shia LaBeouf’s stepdad!” someone yells when Production Assistant Alecia LaRue’s name rolls by in the credits.

6:00pm – I began getting kind of antsy. My stomach was weighted down with food, as I’d eaten all my provisions out of fear that they’d go bad. I wondered if I could sneak into a different movie. I wasn’t too bothered by the ethical dilemma of not seeing every single showing, as sometimes self-preservation trumps morality. But just getting up and walking around is good too:

Pressure ulcers, also known as decubitus ulcers or bedsores, are localized injuries to the skin and/or underlying tissue that usually occur over a bony prominence as a result of pressure, or pressure in combination with shear and/or friction. The most common sites are the sacrum, coccyx, heels or the hips, but other sites such as the elbows, buttocks, knees, ankles or the back of the cranium can be affected.

A simple example of a mild pressure sore may be experienced by healthy individuals while sitting in the same position for extended periods of time: the dull ache experienced is indicative of impeded blood flow to affected areas. Within two hours, this shortage of blood supply, called ischemia, may lead to tissue damage and cell death. The sore will initially start as a red, painful area. The other process of pressure ulcer development is seen when pressure is high enough to damage the cell membrane of muscle cells. The muscle cells die as a result and skin fed through blood vessels coming through the muscle die. This is the deep tissue injury form of pressure ulcers and begins as purple intact skin.”

The customary ‘SIX!’ yell started off a ‘7! 8! 9!’ succession. Someone yelled “You can count!” in response, to which the initial yeller yelled “I’m a math major!” This was actually true – the proud math major was observed doing math homework between each showing.

Our neighbors’ choice comment from this showing addressed the motivations of the “creepy” psychiatrist Bill Murray sees: “Mommy touched me when I was little so now I’m going to help people,” they narrated.

In 2012, Bill Murray embarked on a nationwide party tour in which he would come to your house and hang out, provided you call him Keyser Söze and had a banner out front that says “Bill Murray can crash here!” There was some speculation/hope that he (or anyone from the movie, for that matter) would make a surprise appearance at the contest, especially since Murray reportedly has a house in Dublin, a nearby suburb.

(Bill Murray was also said to have this trick where he’d walk up to you and steal your hat [and not return it] just so you could tell your friends that Bill Murray stole your hat. Yes, it would be funny, but reckoned I would also be pretty annoyed if he stole my lucky hat. As he hadn’t shown up, it did not seem that this was in danger of happening.)

8:00pm – I got up and walked around for the last forty-five minutes of this showing. I met Max Vokhgelt in the lobby and he told me that he and his friends were keeping some tallies: “I’ve Got You, Babe” plays ten times in the movie, as does the “Pennsylvania Polka.” I added this to my own list of tallies: Bill Murray is slapped ten times, once because he asks to be slapped, once in the bedroom, and eight times during the sequence showing his repeated failure to woo Andie MacDowell. Fifteen snowballs are thrown during the snowball fight sequence, the last being a particularly (some may say unnecessarily) forceful throw at a kid. There is an uncomfortable scene when Bill Murray tries to get Andie MacDowell to stay with him – she offers ten refusals to his fifteen inducements to stay. He hits himself in the face three times in the psychiatrist’s office. “Strrrriiiiiiike!!” is yelled by the audience when the guy gets a strike at the bowling alley, and someone pointed out that, come the final showing of the movie, the guy will have bowled twelve strikes, a perfect game. Candice at the concession stand said that everyone was cheery and optimistic when the day started but by this point everyone was red-eyed and looked defeated. Alcohol sales were steady. The staff was commendable for the quality of the bathrooms – I was worried about potential hygienic disaster but it had all been managed perfectly. The movie theater itself did not take on the offensive odor one might expect from three hundred people sitting around and eating all day, so that was a relief too. This was the penultimate showing and people seem to be gearing up for an explosive final viewing.

9:00pm – someone in the first row was clearly using a tablet. It was a dark theater, so any source of light was completely noticeable from anywhere in the room. A few people started booing, and a few people yelled warnings at the dude to put it away. Suddenly, the movie stopped and the lights turned on – a staff member walked up to the guy and told him he committed his final error and that he’d have to leave. My neighbors renewed their colorful invectives against the fascist theater staff, as they were beside themselves that such an affront was actually taking place. Not that I encourage submitting to some arbitrary authority, but the rules for the marathon were very clear, not to mention the offending party had been repeatedly warned that devices are verboten any time the movie was playing.

10:00pm – the last showing was great and worth the 22 previous hours. Everyone immediately started yelling and cheering when the movie began, and everything yelled throughout the night was repeated again, but much louder and more enthusiastically, if that was even possible. People got up and danced to the opening credit music and the music used to transition between scenes. The warnings for Bill Murray to watch out for a shovel that’s about to hit him reach a fevered pitch, with the awesome kid in the audience noting sadly that “he never heeds our warnings” after Bill Murray gets clocked. Someone yelled ‘HOGROUND DAY!’ and for some reason this was utterly hilarious. The scene where Gobbler’s Knob is named for the first time was an audience favorite: “Wait for it….wait for it…. [‘Gobbler’s Knob’] YEAH!!!!!” “Why is that funny?” someone asked. Uh, what? The place is called Gobbler’s Knob for crying out loud! The last viewing definitely felt like the shortest. I wanted the movie to progress not so I could go home but to hear the new commentary to our favorite parts of the film. But before you knew it, the challenge was over. No more stills or Pennsylvania polka or card-punching once the credits finished scrolling. People gathered their belongings and shuffled out of the theater as easily as if they were leaving a normal night at the movies.

The movie originally ended with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell waking on February the 3rd to find that Andie is trapped in her own time loop, and I’m sure there would be more than enough people willing to stay for another twenty-four hours. I’m sure Pat would have been up to it.

 

11 down, 1 to go!

11 down, 1 to go!

****

As is the case with any fun event, once it is over you can’t believe all of the anticipation and antics have finally come to an end. It is weird experiencing something unusual with hundreds of other people and then leaving as if nothing had happened. It was kind of a bummer to bid goodbye to all these intimate strangers.

Walking home was a little strange because my sense of time was genuinely kind of skewed. Not that I am by any means whatsoever comparing myself to people who have actually experienced some kind of horrible real life imprisonment, but I had the briefest glimpse into what confinement-induced time disorientation must be like. It felt like ages ago that Pat and I walked from my apartment to the movie theater, but it also felt like no time had passed at all. Fortunately I was already wearing sweatpants and comfortable tennis shoes – the discomfort of my compressed ass could be addressed by running a few laps around the block.

Would I do the challenge again? Possibly, as the last couple of viewings are definitely worth experiencing again. Will I do it again? I’m not sure, for right now the idea of seeing a movie in a theater sometime even in the next month is pretty unappealing. But I do have a year’s worth of free tickets, so a night at the movies might be in order to simply to celebrate my dubious accomplishment. Having ate and slept and lived there for a day, the theater almost felt like a home away from home.

(Apparently a musical adaptation of Groundhog Day in the works, which I will absolutely not be seeing once, let alone twelve, times. A musical marathon would be tantamount to torture, even if it is based on a story I have come to know intimately.)